Matt Williams has dabbled in managing as a fill-in here and there. Now, thanks to the Arizona Fall League, he'll get to be the man in the dugout on a full-time basis.
Williams, currently the third-base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, is the marquee name on the list of managers and coaches for the 20th anniversary season of the AFL, announced on Wednesday by the elite prospects league. With the league now entering its third decade, Williams, who will manage the Salt River Rafters, will be joined by many alumni of the league, with six of the 18 managers and coaches having played in the AFL in the past.
"I think it's great," said Williams, who spent 17 seasons in the big leagues with the Giants and D-backs. "I think it will be fun to work with kids who are some of the best prospects in their respective organizations. I've been part of it before, and I think it's a great league."
Williams was a substitute manager in the Fall League back in 2007, sitting in for Chip Hale. Hale was Arizona's third-base coach at the time and he got held up due to the D-backs' run to the National League Championship Series. Williams stepped in and managed the Scottsdale Scorpions until Hale took over.
That was actually Williams' second sub stint as a skipper. Earlier in that season, he came out of the broadcast booth to take over the Double-A Mobile BayBears when Brett Butler was ill. This time, the former third baseman will get the chance to work with a team from start to finish.
"The organization asked me to do it and I jumped at the chance because it will be a lot of fun, and it will give me some good experience, too," Williams said.
That experience can prove to be invaluable. While the league gets most of its well-deserved reputation for helping players reach the Major Leagues, it's done the same for managing prospects as well, with many former AFL skippers going on to manage big league clubs. Dusty Baker hadn't managed at all before going to the AFL in 1992, the first year of the league. He took over as the Giants' manager the following season and is now in the Fall League Hall of Fame. He, Terry Francona, Grady Little, Jerry Manuel, Tony Pena and Mike Scioscia are all enshrined as managers. Is Williams interested in following that path, from AFL to Major League dugout?
"I have aspirations to do that," Williams said. "I've been thinking about that for a long time, but you need to be prepared. This will give me an opportunity to experience some of that and further prepare myself in case that opportunity ever arises."
The other managers and coaches have a wide variety of experiences as teacher's of the game's future stars, working with Minor League clubs during the season. Many of them know first-hand what the AFL means to the players they'll be working with this fall, having played in Arizona themselves.
Dusty Wathan, currently the manager of the Double-A Reading Phillies, played twice, in 1996 and 1999. He'll manage the Peoria Javelinas this season. His pitching coach, Lance Painter, pitched in the AFL back in 1993. Aaron Holbert, the skipper for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, was a player in 1995. So was Jon Nunnally, who is back as the hitting coach for Williams and the Rafters. Jason Wood and Jim Brower are the manager and pitching coach for the Surprise Saguaros. Wood played in 1993, Brower in 1997.
"Any time you can put yourself in the players' shoes, it definitely helps," Wathan said. "It wasn't that long ago you were sitting in their shoes. You know what's going through their heads. I think it's a benefit for me. If you've done what you're trying to teach or organize, it's a huge benefit."
The Arizona Fall League's 20th anniversary season begins on Tuesday, October 9, with top prospects from every organization filling the six team rosters. It plays three games per day, six days a week (Monday-Saturday), in six Cactus League stadiums (Mesa Hohokam Stadium, Peoria Sports Complex, Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale Stadium and Surprise Stadium) in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Daily start times are 12:35 p.m. and 6:35 p.m. MST.
This year's seventh annual Rising Stars Game will be played on Saturday, November 3 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. The league's championship will be held Saturday, November 17 at Scottsdale Stadium. The league's 2012 schedule will be released in early August followed by rosters in late August.
"It's a neat way for me to meet guys, players from other organizations and form lasting friendships," Wathan said. "Eric Valent and I played together in the Fall League. My first year managing, he was my hitting coach. You have lasting friendships from other clubs. It's another way to see how other organizations run things, play for a different manager, who maybe has a different style.
"The league was a great idea by MLB," Wathan said. "It's a chance for players to develop under a controlled atmosphere, as opposed to winter ball. The Fall League is a tremendous place to judge yourself as a young player against some of the best there are in the minor leagues. It's a wake-up call for young players to see how good the talent is all over the place. It's pretty much an all-star game every day."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter.